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New documentary focuses on Stanford’s Design for Extreme Affordability course

Tonight, Stanford will host a screening of a new documentary titled "Extreme By Design." The film chronicles the story of three groups of students from the Design for Extreme Affordability course as they create innovative products and services to solve problems in developing countries.

The teams featured in the film, which are composed of business, engineering and medical students, are working on three distinct projects: developing a breathing device to keep infants in Bangladesh from dying of pneumonia, creating an IV-infusion device for Bengali hospital patients and designing a new method for storing drinking water for Indonesian villagers. The documentary begins on the first day of the Design for Extreme Affordability class and concludes a year later when one group returns to Asia to test their project in the field amid plans to launch a start-up company.

Below, producer and co-director Ralph King discusses the catalyst for making the film, which will air later this year on PBS, and what impact he hopes it will have on audiences.

What inspired you to make a film about the Design for Extreme Affordability course?

I first heard about [the course] while playing squash with a Stanford undergrad who applied, but hadn’t gotten in. As a result, he and a few friends planned to go to a village in Mexico to investigate local needs and design some kind of product for them. I was struck by his gumption and the motivating effect of the course. I figured that for those students who did get in to the course it must be a powerful experience. I confirmed this during the next six months that I spent auditing the course. I travelled to Myanmar with one of the student teams and had a moment of self-discovery there that I will never forget. Once it became clear that many of the Extreme students had had similar moments, I decided I had to try to capture those moments on film. That was my inspiration, but of course the film would not be what it is without my team, co-director and executive producer Michael Schwarz, executive producer Kiki Kapany, and a host of others.

How did you select which teams to feature in the film?

We started by interviewing all 40 students before the class started. From these, we picked a dozen or so contenders because of their openness, background and comfort in front of a camera. We followed most of them through the first quarter of the course. Then once they chose their international projects, we narrowed the field to half a dozen students on four teams. We sent camera crews to three locations simultaneously — Bangladesh, Indonesia, and an Arizona Apache reservation — to cover their field research during spring break, and continued to follow the four teams through the course’s second quarter. In the editing room, we made the final cut to three teams because their stories were most compelling.

The overarching narrative of the film focuses on a group of students determined to build a better world through the entrepreneurial process. But what can it teach us about why global health is important beyond those living in developing countries?  

In the film, the students use the creative process of Design Thinking to find solutions to seemingly impossible problems, some of which are health-care related. There are many aspects of health care right here in the U.S. that can benefit enormously from the application of Design Thinking and, in fact, several courses at Stanford do just that.

What impact do you hope this documentary will have on audiences and the general public?  

Before becoming a filmmaker, I spent 25 years as an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and other publications. When I was in college in the 1970s, I saw “All The President’s Men” and that film inspired me to follow the path of [journalists] Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. My hope is that this film will inspire the coming generation of creative problem solvers. Today’s social entrepreneurs and innovators are really my heroes and Design Thinking, practiced at the Stanford and elsewhere, may one day be considered the crown jewel of 21st century education.

Previously: Stanford graduates partner with clinics in developing countries to test low-cost prosthetic, Improving treatment for infant respiratory distress in developing countries and Reducing infant mortality rates in developing countries
Photo by Ralph King

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